Monday, 27 November 2006

How to be alone

The title of my blog comes from a quote from the fantastic philosopher Michel de Montaigne so it is only right that I devote an entry to him but before I go on with the topic I must give my two favourite quotes of his.
"Upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses"
The other quote deals with a pretty similar theme:
"Kings and philosophers shit: and so do ladies"
Montaigne was a man who believed that you can live a virtuous life even if you speak no ancient Greek, fart and not know the ancient philosophers, but as long as you strive towards wisdom (even if you never stray too far from folly). He spent a large amount of his life in isolation, locked up in the most wonderful library atop a tower in his estate in Perigord, France. He was not only surrounded by his amassed book collection but by sixty or so maxims from ancient Greek and Roman scholars (including the likes of Cicero, Seneca, Virgil and Socrates) carved into the wooden beams.

As you can imagine from Montaigne's style of life, he was not afraid to live alone, he was in fact keen to make the most of it:
"Now since we are undertaking to live, without companions, by ourselves, let us make our happiness depend on ourselves; let us loose ourselves from the bonds which tie us to others; let us gain power over ourselves to live really and truly alone -- and of doing so in contentment"
His first piece of advice seems almost intuitive, to keep occupied though to tailor that occupation the best way to suit one's humour. Unusquisque sua noverit ire via -- let each man choose the road he should take. But, nothing should be done to excess:
"Whether we are running our homes or studying or hunting or following any sport, we should go to the very boundaries of pleasure but take good care not be involved beyond the point where it begins to be mingled with pain".
Montaigne and I share a method of occupation and he singled it out for a special mention:
"Books give pleasure: but if frequenting them eventually leads to loss of our finest accomplishments, joy and health, then give up your books."
His second piece of advice is not to expect too much from your time alone. He baulks at the ideas of Pliny the Younger and of Cicero, ideas of attaining glory for 'ambition is the humour most contrary to seclusion'.
"We must do like the beasts and scuff out our tracks at the entrance to our lairs...withdraw into yourself, but first prepare yourself to welcome you there"
Okay, I'd be the first person to admit that Montaigne's ideas for how to be alone are, well, pretty naff and if you asked Montaigne himself whether one should be alone he would in all probability say no but learning to be alone will always be an important thing to learn because it is an inevitability in life that we will spend time with only ourselves as companions.
"We should have wives, children, property and, above all good health...if we can: but we should not become so attached to them that our happiness depends on that when the occasion arises that we must lose them it should not be a new experience to do without them"
So how should we be alone? Montaigne seems to say that's really up to you, find out what works and then do it, just not to excess. It's not a way of living that he would suggest we chose, but one we learn to accommodate. Life can throw up the most unexpected incidents, we may lose our families, be thrown in jail, in essence we are a slave to fortune. The most telling quote from his essay 'on solitude' comes from the founder of the school of cynical philosophy, Antisthenes, 'man ought to provide himself with unsinkable goods, which could float out of a shipwreck with him'. Learning how to be alone is Montaigne's unsinkable good.

Saturday, 25 November 2006

Marx on the lash

I have the uncanny ability to remember random trivia and anecdotes and yet forget important things like what day it is or what I should be doing in an hour. That said, I still manage to keep myself entertained if not the people who have to listen to my stories. La Rochefoucauld in his maxims asked the pertinent question 'Why is it that our memory is good enough to retain the least triviality that happens to us, and yet not good enough to recollect how often we have told it to the same person?' So if you have heard this one before then I apologise profusely.

Karl Marx spent a great deal of his life living in exile mostly due to the inflammatory rhetoric that characterised his journalism and his general work. Starting off in Prussia he set up or joined left-wing periodicals which led to his expulsion from Prussia itself, followed by Paris and then Brussels, he finally ended up in London in 1849 where he stayed until his death in 1883. The image we are presented of his time in England is that of a man living in the direst poverty undergoing the most horrific personal catastrophes (namely the loss of successive children) yet working every hour he could in the British Library writing the great epic, darkly gothic and frustratingly impenetrable 'Das Kapital' but it is quite reassuring to find out that life wasn't all poverty and politics.

At some point in the 1870's, I have not been able to ascertain the exact date, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Wilhelm Liebknecht went on what can only be described as a legendary pub crawl. They started off in central London and went down Tottenham Court Road through to Hampstead having a glass of beer in each of the eighteen pubs they passed. As they stumbled home Marx picked up some stones and smashed four of five street lamps before the Police gave chase. It was said by Marx's friend Liebknecht, that in evading capture "Marx showed an agility I could not have attributed to him".

Opinions of Marx will always been polarised and I don't think that an anecdote of 'drunk and disorderly' will act to change anyones' opinions but it is wonderful to hear the personal side to someone who, for better or worse, certainly shaped much of the twentieth century for a large proportion of the world's population.

Sunday, 19 November 2006

Goethe the Murderer

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is a particular hero of mine, anyone who can lead a literary movement known as the 'Sturm und Drang' movement has to be deserving of one's respect It was the wonderful book 'the Sorrows of Young Werther' that shot him to literary fame virtually overnight. The philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were both big fans and Napoleon Bonaparte was said to have carried a copy of this book when he went on his military campaigns. The story of Werther, as the name suggests, is not a happy tale. It is the story of Werther's unrequited love for Lotte whom is betrothed to another, Albert. The story follows his descent into depression and indeed obsession before in a fit of torment he finally ends it all. As I've said, this book proved incredibly popular and following it being published there was a veritable 'Werthermaina'. To prove the power of literature it is thought that somewhere in the region of two thousand readers were thought to have killed themselves in what can only be described as 'copycat-suicides'.

In 1933 a Hungarian by the name Rezso Seress wrote the song 'Gloomy Sunday' after breaking up with his girlfriend. In an attempt at reconciliation he played her that song -- two days later she was dead. She left a two-word suicide note, the words being "gloomy sunday". On the release of the song it was thought that approximately one hundred suicides were directly as a response to hearing this song and it took on the rather macabre moniker 'the Hungarian Suicide Song'. There is a reported incident in which a beggar was playing this song as a gentleman passed, on hearing it he promptly gave him all his property and then threw himself out of the window of his apartment. So seriously is this song taken that until as recently as 2002 the BBC had banned it from being played on any of its channels.

This is the song but before you follow that link I'd like you to think happy thoughts and know that if you need an appropriate antidote there is always one available here. It is an interesting contrast between the two. Goethe wrote 'the Sorrows of Young Werther' back in the 1770's and it is easy to dismiss those who reacted to his work as being people of their time, perhaps not as well-rounded and intelligent as we like to think ourselves but the Hungarian Suicide song shatters that illusion as it shows that even (relatively) modern audiences can be so affected. Is Goethe a murderer? That's a difficult question, personally I'd like to think he isn't and applying a somewhat Kantian ethical analyses one could back up that belief. Though how far should one go absolve authors from the effects of their work?

I'd like to end on an even more macabre note (if that's possible) and ask the question what piece of music or indeed literary work do you find the most suicide-inspiring?

Friday, 17 November 2006

Proust and Women

As I struggle along with the reading of ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ by Marcel Proust I came across something he wrote in ‘The Captive’ which brought me to consider Marcel’s attitude to women.

“Albertine has developed to an astonishing degree. This was a matter of complete indifference to me, a woman’s intellectual qualities having always interested me so little that if I pointed them out to some woman or other it was solely out of politeness.”

Women know your place – or at least it could be interpreted in that way. In real life Proust had an interesting relationship with women. In a rather blunt letter to his grandfather which he wrote aged sixteen Marcel describes the cure for a pastime that might otherwise have sent him blind:

“I so badly needed to see a woman in order to stop my bad habits of masturbating that papa gave me 10 francs to go to the brothel. But, 1st in my excitement, I broke the chamber pot, 3 francs, 2nd in this same excitement, I wasn’t able to have sex. So now I’m back to square one, constantly waiting for another 10 francs to empty myself and 3 francs more for that pot”.
Perhaps Marcel had a good reason why he was incapable of achieving détente. The character Albertine was thought to have been based on the relationship he had with his chauffer, Alfred Agostinelli whom he was said to have known well (yes, I do mean in the biblical sense). But perhaps too there is another reason:

“If prostitutes…attract us so little, it is not because they are less beautiful than other women, but because they are ready and waiting; because they already offer us precisely what we seek to attain.”

I hate to think that my selection of quotes will act to leave a bad impression of him and to be fair to him one must always remember to place him in his historical context and you must also place them within a literary context in that his characters are not necessarily deployed as a mouthpiece of his philosophical outlook.

Bearing all that in mind, I think for Marcel the essence of life, or at least one’s enjoyment thereof, lies in anticipation. A theme that is repeated throughout his novel is that the male characters (Swann, Saint-Loup, de Charlus and indeed the narrator himself) only begin to appreciate the charms of their women (and in some occasions men) once the threat of infidelity hangs over them. The worst thing that can befall a relationship is that it becomes a creature of habit and for Marcel’s characters it seems that only on anticipating some infidelity do they seem to reawaken an interest. Is Proust suggesting that the threat of infidelity is a necessity in a successful relationship – I don’t think so, but perhaps it takes outside influences to make you appreciate what you have:

“When you come to live with a woman, you will soon cease to see anything of what made you love her; though it is true that the two sundered elements can be reunited by jealousy.”

If you conduct a relationship along the lines of any that take place within ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ then I can assure you that you shall be miserable. However if you remember that one can keep a relationship fresh and exciting without the threat if infidelity inspiring panicked response to an upsurge of jealous rage, then there is hope for you yet.